T Bone Burnett on Documentary Series ‘American Epic,’ Depicting ‘Greatest Act of Democratization in American History’

T Bone Burnett
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Producer and singer-songwriter T Bone Burnett is known for being an analog champion in a digital world. But when he’s talking about golden ages of the music business, he isn’t necessarily thinking about something so recent as LPs. As his involvement in the new PBS documentary series “American Epic” makes clear, Burnett believes that the recording industry was never more vital than when it was an almost strictly regional force in the late 1920s and early 1930s — representing American democracy at its very peak, in his mind.

“Essentially it was a time when the United States was at its best, when it went into the country and recorded the poorest people in the nation and broadcast their songs and stories all around the world,” Burnett said. “That was the greatest act of democratization in American history. That was the beginning of the internet and everything else where the average man could be heard. But now, anybody can say anything and nobody cares — the problem of ubiquitous data. This was more profound. And this is a film about the way that whole library of recordings is being archived, and the people who did it and the lives they lived.”

Along with narrator Robert Redford and fellow musician/producer Jack White, Burnett is one of three executive producers of “American Epic,” which airs in three-hour long episodes through late May on PBS. The real stars of that series are now-ancient names like the Carter Family, Charley Patton, and Blind Willie Johnson. But there’s also a follow-up, feature-length documentary called “The American Epic Sessions,” which follows Burnett and White co-producing an album of contemporary performers using non-electrical 1920s equipment. The stars of that doc, which premieres in June, include Elton John, Beck, Nas, Willie Nelson, Steve Martin, and Alabama Shakes.

The various elements that add up to “American Epic” have been in production for the better part of this decade, and have brought artists like Rhiannon Giddens, the Avett Brothers, and Los Lobos into a Hollywood studio to recreate the spirit of the pre-Depression 78s they love.

The documentary series tells “the story of the American record business from 1926 to 1936,” says Burnett. “In 1926, the American record industry shrank 80% because of the proliferation of radio in the big cities. Because people could get music for free from the radio, they didn’t want to buy records anymore.”

Sound familiar? But there was one crucial difference between the great music industry falloff of the late ‘20s and the one we’re experiencing 90 years later: an untapped market that had no ready access to that vast new wealth of free music. Until this point, as the documentary explains, records had been largely the province of the urban middle class. So when the downturn came, the industry targeted areas where radio was still an unimaginable luxury.

“To regenerate the business,” Burnett explains, “the record companies decided to go where people didn’t have electricity, and record people down South and then sell the records down South. They would go into a furniture store — because that’s where all the records were sold in those days, because the record players were furniture! — and they would say, ‘Is there anybody good here?’ And the (store owner) would say, ‘Well, there’s this fella down the road here. If you record him, I’ll take a thousand records.’ So they would go down the road and record Mississippi John Hurt, or whoever. They could only do it in the winter because the wax would melt in the summer. So they would record it on pulleys, without electricity, pack the wax in ice, and send it on a train up to New Jersey or Chicago, where it would be pressed into shellac records. Those would be put on a train back to the furniture store that ordered them in the first lace. A thousand records would be delivered, and that would be the end of it. The record company’s hands were washed of it. They weren’t keeping masters; they didn’t even think about it again.”Not only was preservation the last thing on anyone’s mind at the time, if anything, that wave of records actually came to be targeted for mass destruction.

“All this recording went on for about 10 years until the Depression finally wiped out that initiative,” Burnett said. “And then with the Second World War, there were the shellac drives in which all the 78s were called in to Washington and melted down or crushed into powder to paint the tanks and battleships. So almost that entire archive was lost. It had only been distributed locally in the South, primarily, although every once in awhile something would become a hit in New York or nationally. And after the war, there were two collectors who had collected all these scratchy, horrible sounding 78s: a guy named Harry Smith, who put out the ‘Anthology of American Folk Music,’ and Samuel Charters, who put out a record called ‘Country Blues’ that everybody listened to back in those days. Those became the two portals — really, the two sources for Dylan and Clapton and the Stones and everybody. That’s where we all learned all this music. We thought the rest were lost.”

But increasingly, what was thought MIA forever has turned up in its original form, and not just slapped on the side of a warship.

“Over the last 50 years, people have been collecting more copies of those things, and we’ve been able to go to (Sony) and say, ‘Here’s the recording you put out on CD five years ago’” — he emulates the sound of intense hissing and scratching — “‘… and here’s the recording we have now,’ which sounds like a guy playing fiddle right in front of you with none of that. And this is off (a needle drop on) the record.”

Some finds have been bigger than others. Says Burnett, “A friend of Bernard (MacMahon, the documentary director and soundtrack album compiler) was painting the Hayes archive north of London, a big warehouse north of London where the EMI tape library is. He came back to Bernard and said, ‘You know, those RCA records you love, there are boxes and boxes of them in the Hayes archive.’ Bernard went up there, sure enough, there were crates. It turned out that in 1906, the head of RCA — which was the first record company in the United States — went to England to compare notes with the head of EMI, which was the first record company in the world. And as he was leaving, he saw a Nipper, and he said, ‘I love your logo — his master’s voice. Would you mind if I put it on my records?’ And the head of EMI said, ‘No, I wouldn’t, as long as you send me one copy of every record you press with my logo on it.’ So from 1906 to 19-thirtysomething, there was one pristine copy of every RCA 78 sent to the Hayes archive. And it’s there — 30,000 records, pristine.”

For some music fans, the most exciting element of the “American Epic” mini-franchise will be the “Sessions” film and album, which features Beck, Elton, et al. — and Jack White himself — recording tracks using the exact equipment used in the 1920s.

“We got this pulley-driven recorder from the 1920s that they recorded Charley Patton on,” Burnett said. “There’s only maybe two or three of ‘em left in the world. We rebuilt one from 8,000 parts or something over a 10-year period. We’ve got another one from the Scully family, the family of the guy who invented it. Recording on this one microphone onto this old 1920s lathe was a lot of fun. So there’s this secondary film of us making a new group of recordings with young artists on this same equipment that they used 80, 90 years ago. And it still sounds great — it sounds better than the stuff we’re recording on now.”

The emphasis was on finding contemporary artists who feel like they could have just as easily cut records in the 1920s, Alabama Shakes being a primary example for Burnett. “That Brittany Howard is a truly great singer,” he says. “She’s deep; she can just shout a note out and the whole place just goes off. It’s a wonderful power to witness. She’s got some Memphis Minnie in her or something.”

For Burnett, the truly epic part of “American Epic” is the music’s journey from the primordial ooze to deep space.

“In the old days of the record industry, they recorded on this wax that came from one mine in Germany,” he says. “So it really starts in a Jurassic forest and it decays and goes down into the ground and turns into this wax, and it’s pulled up out of the ground and turned into this record for one of those sessions. And the way it ends is when Voyager left the solar system with Blind Willie Johnson’s ‘Dark as the Night, Cold as the Ground’ aboard it. That’s the American epic.”